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Summit Fire: Look at Rebuilding 3 Years Later

Summit Fire: Look at Rebuilding 3 Years Later

Santa Cruz Sentinel

May 29, 2011

Thursday, the man charged with starting the fire, Los Gatos contractor Channing Verden was held to answer on a charge of recklessly starting the Summit Fire, after a four-day preliminary hearing in San Jose. A trial date has not been set. If convicted, Verden faces a sentence of probation to up to five years in prison, prosecutors said.

Verden has not been charged with starting the fire intentionally, but prosecutors said massive burn piles he left while working at a Summit Road property six weeks earlier were not doused with water properly. Wind whipped the embers spreading the flames for miles.

Verden was clearing trees and brush and burning them so the landowner, Andrew Napell, a computer chip designer, could build a house. Verden denied the wildfire originated on his job site.

Cal Fire officials visited the burn piles shortly after the job started in March 2008. They told Verden the piles were too large and needed to be monitored 24 hours a day. Verden assured the firefighters he had done controlled burns before and he was working to get a water source to the property. It’s unclear if Cal Fire ever revisited the site to ensure the burn piles were extinguished.

Wallace, the Summit Road area homeowner, contends Cal Fire should have followed up.

“Channing Verden is the scapegoat,” Wallace said.

Cal Fire Division Chief John Ferreira said many factors affect firefighters’ ability to fight a wildfire once it picks up speed with a plentiful supply of dry fuel. The vegetation in that mountainous area is “lighter and flashier” than it is in the lower parts of the county, Ferreira said.

The hills are full of poorly marked streets and addresses with difficult access for fire vehicles much less an average vehicle, he said.

Because it’s a remote area with long driving times, firefighters can have “very limited choices” about which house to try to save, he said.

“It comes with the territory (up there),” Ferreira said. "And I’ll certainly defend our firefighters to the hilt. They did all the could, and to be frank, some of those houses we may not have known existed.

“You can train and do all that, but there is not much chance to go up every driveway and some are so narrow you can’t get up them anyway,” the tenured division chief said.

The flames shot an incredible 150 feet up in the air that day, Ferreira said of May 22, 2008.

All the wrong factors came together that early morning, he added, with high winds, low humidity, lots of dry fuel, pre-dawn lighting that made it hard to see, and more.

“It was just a bad combination of things,” he said. “And it was stunningly fast, all those years of drought took their toll it seems. … I know there are still questions about our abilities, but there was really no catching it with the winds and the fuel.”



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